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Jan 15 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

January 12, 2014 – Genesis 38

Big Apologies

The reason we did not live stream on Sunday was because our technician was under the weather. We had planned to provide a video feed this week when we opened a conversation about Genesis chapter 38 in place of our usual Bible study. We are sorry we were not able to share it with those of you who were hoping to join us online. At any rate, a good questions were raised and several very insightful observations were made.

Make sure you have read Genesis 38 before looking at the notes that follow, which outline the topics that came up on Sunday:

Background information

This episode is definitely out of chronological sequence. It would have been impossible for Judah to meet a Canaanite woman, father three sons, watch them grow until the oldest two reached a marriageable age, see both of them die, suffer the death of his wife, and some time later father two more children by Tamar in the space of time it took Joseph to travel from Canaan to Egypt! 

Notice that the last verse of chapter takes us to the same scene in the first verse of chapter 39, but from two different perspectives (from Canaan, 37:36, and in Egypt, 39:1). This tells us that the brief account of Judah’s story overlaps this one episode in the ongoing story of Joseph’s life.

Besides building suspense as we wait to learn what will happen to Joseph in Egypt, the strange account of Judah’s marriage and what followed, provides an interlude between the story of Jacob, Judah’s father (chapters 27-37) and Joseph, Judah’s brother (chapters 39-50).

If the storyteller is not concerned with historical sequence, he nevertheless finds a unity of themes in chapters 37-39 that he artfully connects. For example:

  1. “went down [literally] from his brothers” (38:1) corresponds to “taken down” in 39:1. Both Judah and Joseph were isolated from their family when the events in these two accounts occurred. “Went down” and “taken down” may also set the tone for both stories, suggesting the unhappiness they were going to experience before their circumstances took an upturn (which happened for Judah in 38:12).
  2. Both Judah and Joseph encounter women who make themselves sexually available
  3. Both women hang on to something that belongs to each of the men. The items they hang on to are used to identify the man who allegedly had sex with them  (Judah’s seal and cord and staff, Joseph’s coat). In both episodes, these things were used as evidence.
  4. Both women used clothing in an act of deception–Tamar, to disguise herself as a prostitute rather than a widow, and Potiphar’s wife to falsely accuse Joseph. These them also ties into chapter 37, where Judah and his brothers used Joseph’s coat to deceive their father Jacob. Note also, that for Joseph, this is the second time that his robe got him in to trouble and was stripped from him (37:23 & 39:12-14)
  5. The evidence of Judah’s involvement was “sent” to Judah as the evidence of Joseph’s apparent death was “sent” to Jacob. In both instances, someone was asked to “please examine” the evidence and let it speak for itself (37:32 & 38:25)

Questions and Observations:

What is the point of this story?

Whenever we stumble over a confusing passage of scripture, the first thing we need to do is step back and try to see the big picture  and whether that helps us make better sense of the section that bothers us. In this instance, it may help to look at a recurring motif in Genesis.

In literature a “foil” is a character introduced into a story to provide a strong contrast with someone else–frequently the main character. By way of contrast, the foil highlights the virtues and positive traits of the hero. Almost every hero in Genesis has a foil: Abel and Cain, “blameless” Noah and the rest of humankind whose “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, Abraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and now, here, it is Joseph and Judah.

Why Judah? In chapter 37, Judah emerged as the leader of brothers and later on he will become their spokesperson. In this role, he represents all of them. Furthermore, Judah is important in his own right, for his descendants is the only tribe of Israel to become its own kingdom. Judah is no doubt the best choice of all Joseph’s brothers to be placed here as his foil.

Another persistent and related theme in Genesis is God’s disregard of the firstborn status and his preference for one of the younger sons. In doing so, it becomes clear that God’s work does not depend on humans nor on their natural gifts and strengths.

Most everyone who reads this chapter is disturbed by it. I want to suggest that is exactly the point and purpose of it. Judah’s behavior and the actions attributed to God are meant to disturb us. At this point, we are not supposed to feel good about Judah. Through this realistic view of the human condition and how we exacerbate it through bad choices, Joseph stands out as a brilliant example of everything good and beautiful.

But there is yet another and even more remarkable message. Despite our many human short-comings and failures, God is still able to work his will.

What about God taking the lives of Judah’s two oldest sons? (vv. 6-10)

Not being informed regarding the evil Er did or why it deserved capital punishment–and the fact that it appears to be God who carries out the sentence–, the text seems to depict God doing exactly the things for which the Scriptures are frequently criticized. Indeed, too many Christians have the idea that the “God of the Old Testament” is a harsh, cruel, unforgiving, and blood-thirsty deity. So how are we to approach this section of the text.

To say that Er “was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life,” is to describe and interpret an event. The event was Er’s untimely death, having married yet producing no heir. To the storyteller’s audience, this would seem like a senseless tragedy. However, according to their worldview there were no senseless tragedies. They believed that being sovereign over his universe, God was personally behind, and involved in, everything that happened. Believing also that God is absolutely just, there had to be a meaning or rational explanation for everything. So if Er died under unfortunate circumstances, the ready-made conclusion to be drawn would be that Er was evil and so evil that God removed him from the earth.

Although it is a natural tendency to look for meaning in tragic circumstances, we no longer share this ancient worldview. Moreover, to pin a reason on every event involves making judgments that are “above our pay grade.”

The storyteller was not revealing a theological truth, he was merely reporting an event within the context of his culture. That is why he shows little concern over the event, it simply was not important to him. It was only a detail to keep the plot moving. His real interest lay in what was yet to come. The sentence was just his way of saying that Er died an unusual death.

Onan, however, did do something evil. But was it so evil he deserved to die? Again, the storyteller is reporting that Onan also died an unusual death, which his audience would attribute to God.

Nevertheless, it is important to be clear on what exactly was Onan’s sin. The “duty as a brother-in-law” Judah referred to, was the custom of providing an heir for the oldest son if he were married and died without first having a son. Giving birth to a son, who would give birth to a son, who would give birth to a son, and so on, was something that gave people in the ancient Mediterranean world a real sense of immortality. To die without an heir is to be cut off from the future and the world of humankind. Such a thought terrified the ancient mind. For women, giving her husband  a son fulfilled her purpose (cf. Sarah and Rachel).

Besides that, the oldest son was believed to possess the lion’s share of the father’s vitality and productivity. Therefore, when the father died, the oldest son’s inheritance was a “double portion” of what any younger brothers received. We are not taken inside Onan’s mind, so it is impossible to know what resentment, greed, anxiety gripped him so greatly that he refused to keep his brother’s name alive. All his duty entailed was providing one son by Tamar for his deceased brother, then any other children he had would be his own. His crime was tantamount to killing off his brother’s line.

Still, to say that God took his life means no more than that he died under unusual circumstances. This way of interpreting the events of life–e.g., good people get good things and a blessed life, bad people get misfortune and an early death–is questioned in several of the Psalms, by the prophet Jeremiah, and the entire book of Job. The Lord Jesus counteracted this way of interpreting circumstances in Luke 13:1-5.

What are we to make of Tamar’s scheme and Judah’s complicity? (vv. 14-19)

First, notice that the storyteller simply narrates event without making any moral comments
• normal family relations provided for women, but a widow had few options
– Tamar, however, was responding to an injustice when she took matters into her own hands
• for her, it wasn’t about sex (it is rarely if ever about sex for the prostitute)
○ it was about a legal obligation
– as for Judah using services of prostitute, the storyteller isn’t interested in whether it was “moral”
• he explains, that this dalliance occurred after Judah’s wife died and he had mourned for her
○ in other words, Judah was sexually vulnerable at this time and Tamar took advantage of that fact

What about Judah’s cruel sentence against Tamar? (v. 24, “. . . let her be burned”)
It was the harshest punishment that could be inflicted on her
– perhaps it provided Judah a convenient way out of his son’s duty to his oldest brother
• Judah may have felt he needed to protect Shelah, especially if he suspected that Tamar was jinxed
– there’s no need to explain or justify Judah’s verdict — it is obvious that he was in the wrong (this is made explicit in the next verse)

What about Judah’s statement, “She is more righteous than I?” (v. 26)
Here is where we need to address a huge misunderstanding
– many Christians assume that righteousness has to do with morality
• so they hear Judah saying, “She is more moral than I,” and they wonder how either Tamar playing the role of a prostitute and having sex with her father-in-law or Judah having sex with his daughter-in-law, thinking she was a prostitute could be considered “righteous” (moral)

The category of righteousness is not moral but relational
• it is not about an individual doing right or wrong
○ it’s always about behavior that is connected to someone else
• we have the idiom, “to do right by someone”
– in the world of the Scriptures, every relationship had built-in obligations
• many of those obligations are spelled out in the law of Moses
○ what’s expected of children to parents, of one neighbor toward another, of a people toward their leaders, etc.
○ also, what a person does not do to another — e.g., kill, steal, covet their belongings, etc.
– if the law was strictly about moral or legal issues, Jesus could not say of the first and second greatest commandments, that upon them “depend the whole law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:40) nor could Paul say, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Ro. 13:8-10).
• the Pharisees had made the law about moral issues
○ in doing so, they fabricated an individualistic moral purity while hating some people and exploiting others
– Judah had dodged his relational responsibility to both his oldest son and his daughter-in-law
• Tamar pursued what was owed her and would fulfill her obligation to her deceased husband
○ she was “more righteous,” because what she attempted to do was produce an heir for her son, which would also be a second-generation heir to Judah

Conclusion: This episode is part of an ongoing story

So we won’t find all of the answers here
– it’s full meaning emerges later on
• for now, Judah is a work in progress
– his poor character makes Joseph shine brighter
• a beam of light is more noticeable surrounded by darkness (we don’t see the stars in the daytime)
• against this background, what stands out is Joseph’s integrity, honor, loyalty, and faith — his righteousness

If I try to locate myself in this biblical configuration, I ask myself, “What if I’m the foil?”
– the bad example that makes the good example stand out
– if I can’t shake the haunting impression that I am the foil, then I find encouragement in the ongoing story

First, Judah himself will undergo a dramatic change
– in fact, Joseph will help Judah work through this change and go to great lengths to draw Judah’s attention to it
– so if I’m here as someone else’s foil, there is hope that I can experience a turn-around, even after a lifetime of missing mark

Second, the ancestry of Jesus is not traced back to Joseph–the shining light–, but to Judah
– in spite of our questionable character, God can bring something wonderful into the world through us

Jesus wants to redeem everything
– in my first conversation with Fr. Romuald, he counseled me:

“Connect everything to God, even your sin and your negative thoughts. If you can’t connect something with God, then you’re lost.”

– two years later, in my last conversation with him two weeks prior to his death he returned to that theme:

“Hold the thought and add the name of Jesus. With the negative thought or sin in mind, breathe, “Jesus.” Allow him to redeem it. Otherwise you are keeping that thought separate from Jesus, then it can never be healed. Jesus is not merle a word, but a person. To say his name invites him into my corner. Saying his name intersects two realities. The way out of negativity is not through will-power, but grace power.”

Everything can be redeemed through Jesus, even a foil such as myself

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